Thursday, April 26, 2012

Historic Resonances

I have been taking Ken Ford’s history class at Clouds and we have been studying the book, “A Concise History of Buddhism” by Andrew Skilton.  Certain facts have struck me as very contemporary.  Finding things in history that are very similar to the current issues in American Buddhism, I find very consoling.  It’s not that we have a misunderstanding of Buddhism and its issues but that these problems have a long-standing tradition of being difficult or divisive.  Here is some of the information that I found resonated with contemporary problems.

Precept Recitation
The development of Sangha happened after the Buddha died when disciples may or may not have had direct contact with the person Shakyamuni Buddha.  Because disciples now learned the dharma from other people, the founders added the idea of Sangha as being part of the triple treasure.   In these early years, the sangha congealed by having bi-monthly meetings where they had a formal recitation of the precepts, the vinaya and confession. Otherwise they were independent wandering monks.  This has supported my feelings that our monthly precept recitation is very important and one of the centerpieces of a contemporary non-monastic sangha.

Urban and country centers
The early sanghas began making buildings.  I found it very interesting that there were two types of meeting places for the monks.  An Avasas was a building built for the sangha in the country to live in.  An Aramas was a building built by the laypeople in the city to help ease the collection of alms for the monks.   From the very beginning of our history, there were urban lay oriented centers, and monastic living quarters in the country.  During this time there was a great change in style from wandering monks to monastics.

Diversity in Doctrine.
What I see happening currently is a great diversity in how people are interpreting Buddhism. The way to practice, and adjustments to monastic and lay life, are arising as Buddhism meets the Western Culture.  What I found in my reading is that this happened after Buddha died in the beginning of the codification of Buddhism and throughout the evolution of Buddhism.
Buddhist diversity in the early years (from Skilton) was caused by various factors:
1.    Buddha did not appoint one successor
2.    The sangha itself had a non-centralized structure
3.    The Buddha specifically advised that his disciples remain as islands to themselves.
4.    Isolated community made it easier to have different interpretations
5.    The Buddha himself encouraged diversity as he refused to allow his teaching to be standardized into a particular dialect or format
a.    Different languages certainly attributed to different understandings
6.    Ambiguity in the original teachings when he delivered different teachings according to the individual monk he was teaching
7.    The arising of prominent teachers who had different interpretations of Buddha’s teaching.

The early most debated issues that caused doctrinal divergences.
•    Karma
•    The status of the arhat with the controversy that they were perfectly enlightened or have human faults.
•    The nature of nirvana and of space
•    Whether there was an intermediate existence after death
•    Whether insight occurs instantaneously or gradually
•    Whether the mind is inherently pure and contaminated only by adventitious defilements

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Engaged Buddhism



I live my life in widening circles
That reach out across the world.
I may not ever complete the last one,
But I give myself to it.
--Rilke

We have been studied Engaged Buddhism at Clouds in Water Zen Center this winter and spring.  Of course it’s redundant to say Engaged Buddhism because the main principle of Buddhism is to be totally engaged with each moment.  However, the term Engaged Buddhism has been coined to mean work in the world particularly societal and civic engagement.  All our ‘work’ can be termed service work.

Can we be engaged in social work or politics without harboring the three poisons:  attachment or greed, hatred and anger, ignorance of inter-relationship?  These are the three poisons that are the central hub that turns the wheel of samsara and suffering.  If we meet the world with the poisons in our heart, instead of encouraging peace and healing, we contribute to the world’s suffering.

Tara Brach in her chapter on “Widening the Circles of Compassion:  The Bodhisattva’s Path” in her book “Radical Acceptance” writes about the trance of the unreal other.  We normally live within the safety of our own tribe – people who have the same views, opinions, and culture as we have.  We make up the “other” by grouping under one heading everyone who doesn’t agree with us or who is different.  That “other” absorbs all of our projections and our shadow (the part of ourselves that we judge so bad that we won’t acknowledge it in ourselves and project it externally).  The “other” becomes stereotyped and the real human becomes invisible.  Tara Brach and Rilke admonish us to enlarge our sense of our tribe or widening our circle of compassion.  We can live in a world where everyone is real and has their full dimension of humanity, even if they disagree with us.

Mahatma Gandhi: “ I hold myself to be incapable of hating any being on earth.  By a long course of prayerful discipline, I have ceased for over forty years to hate anybody.  I know this is a big claim.  Nevertheless, I make it in all humility.”

Longfellow:  “If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.”

So, a buddhist-based engagement in the world is quite radically different then our normal behavior patterns.  We start with letting go of our opinions, to open to a “don’t know mind” which enables us feel the moment or event as it really is without our screen of projection.  We strengthen our concentration and composure so we can bear witness to the deepest of humanity’s suffering without escaping the pain of it.  And from that deep pain, and from our clear seeing, we can determine a course of action which might contribute to the well-being of ourselves and society.

As Buddhist practitioners, we have to negotiate the three A Trap and find the appropriate response to each situation.
The three A trap:
1.     Accommodation or Appeasement – saying yes or capitulating when we want to say no, driven by fear.
2.     Attack or aggression – we say no poorly, driven by anger, without concern for the relationship or connection.
3.     Avoid – we say nothing at all.

We practice composure and appropriate expression with courage and risk-taking.  Each event and each response is fresh.  We allow the equanimity phrase to penetrate us.

May we dwell in the great equanimity, free from passion, aggression and prejudice
and try to serve as best we can.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

My dear suffering


My dear suffering, I know you are there, I am here for you, and I will take care of you.
                                                                        Thich Nhat Hanh

There are many moments in the day when I feel my suffering or other’s suffering (which becomes mine) especially people who are close to me.  The world’s suffering also overwhelms me.  My first most natural reaction is to try to escape it, ignore it, or manipulate it; trying to get the world to adjust to what I like. Lately, I have been trying to be aware of suffering and to respond to it by repeating Thich Nhat Hanh's phrase above and then see what action comes out of that.  Often no action other then compassion and understanding are needed.  This is quite radical and I sense this practice could make a profound change in my life.

In the middle of the night, I sometimes wake up in torment or stress and I repeat this phrase.  Convincing myself thru dharma self-talk, that love is the right response and can override fear or self-criticism.   I practice adjusting my mind to accepting the moment as it has arisen. I encourage myself to know that this feeling will pass. Opening my heart, I can allow my suffering to make a communion with all other people, everyone really, who suffers.  I want to deeply feel my sorrow and allow it to soften me into my true human life.

A corresponding practice, which also helps liberate the trapped feeling of our sorrows, is to really notice beauty and miracles in life.  This is the Divine Abode of Joy, which is present to us in each moment.  If I am able to concentrate, letting go of the storyline and see the moment, connection to the divine is available to me.  I can give myself permission, even within suffering, to find nourishment, joy and love.  Instead of thinking my spiritual life is a duty or a tight discipline, I can allow connectedness to come forth and nourish me.  Meditation and other practices can become a place of nourishment and not just another place where I have to accomplish something.

I vow to produce and radiate the energy of ease, freedom, stability, peace, and joy wherever I go.  Lord Buddha, I know I only need to walk with mindfulness and concentration and I am already continuing the career of awakening of you and of the Original Sangha in a beautiful way.”  Thich Nhat Hanh, “Touching the Earth”.

In the midst of our suffering, is where the lotus blooms. 

There is a strange paradox between being of service in the world and taking care of ourselves.  This dichotomy is really a demonstration of “not I or Other”.  My practice needs to include nourishment by resting and noticing that which is beautiful.  Finding what nourishes us is the medicine for our deep suffering.  That nourishment is both mundane like taking a hot bath or a break from our work, or having a cup of tea and the most deep perceptual change, seeing the world through impermanence and no-self.  Awakening to the awe of the miracle of life can cut through many layers of our suffering and help heal us.  Noticing beauty contributes to our awe, which contributes to our gratitude, which brings us more peace and acceptance even in the midst of the continual problems of life.


Friday, April 6, 2012

Touching the earth

For the past few weeks, I have been working with Thich Nhat Hanh’s book “Touching the earth”.  This new practice has brought me refreshment and a greater level of peace in my day.  I am using the bowing and the readings, when I am at home, instead of a morning service.  That, in itself, is quite refreshing.  Doing something different within the context of prayer brings the spirit of the liturgy alive through the novelty of something different.  That is true for all our practices.  Sometimes we have to change or rotate are practices, matching the circumstances of our life, in order to keep them fresh and alive.  When something is rote it is often forgotten or done without joy and concentration.  As Ram Dass said, years ago, “Remember, be here, now”.  The hardest word in that phrase is to “remember”.

Thich Nhat Hanh asks us to do our bows slowly.  We touch the earth with our frontal lobes or our discursive minds, to allow ourselves to let go of the swirling world of thought and let everything drain back into the earth and be supported by the earth.  The earth is an example of unconditional acceptance.  The earth receives all weather and all conditions with complete equanimity and offers in response, support.  At the bottom of your bow, take three full breaths and contemplate the reading or what you are bowing to which is included in the guided meditations.  Slowing down my bow has allowed me to more completely relax or let go, as I am doing this service.

The readings take about 1-3 minutes a piece and I have been doing several of them at a time.  This means that this practice doesn’t take up that much time but is very penetrating. It reviews the major tenets of our understanding and practice.

Here are a few examples from the readings that I have written on index cards to carry with me throughout the day.  This are condensed sound bytes from a longer reading.

•    Lord Buddha, You have taught me not to regret the past or lose myself in anxiety and fear about the future.  Through mindfulness and concentration, I can enter the beauty of the pure land of the present moment and be nourished.
•    Lord Buddha, all of your disciples, whether monks, nuns or lay practitioners, are in one way or another your continuation; they are the Buddha.  I see you in the methods of practice you taught, which, when used intelligently, always lead to transformation and healing.  I recognize you in the energy of understanding and compassion, embodied in people, in writings, poetry, architecture, music and other works of art and forms of culture.  I recognize you, the Buddha, in myself, in the seeds of awakening and love in me that make it possible for me to practice understanding and compassion.
•    Lord Buddha, I still have the habit of acting as if everything is permanent and I am a separate self.  I have the tendency to believe that my feelings, my perceptions, my mental formations, and my consciousness are permanent, cutting me off from other people and living beings and causing suffering.  But from now onward, I shall solidly practice to maintain the Samadhi on interbeing and impermanence to nourish my awareness that all composed things are of the nature to change and that I am interconnected with all beings throughout space and time.

And many more in “Touching the earth, intimate conversation with Buddha” by Thich Nhat Hanh.